Secrets of Colombia’s ancient rock art: ‘It’s the Rosetta Stone of the Americas’

Deep in the Colombian rainforest lies the world’s largest concentration of rock art. What does it reveal about the people who painted it 20,000 years ago? Emily Hart reports for The Times of London.

In a remote corner of Colombia stand the peaks of Chiribiquete, a series of tabletop mountains rising like rocky islands above the sea of rainforest canopy. These sheer cliffs and labyrinthine caves are the result of millennia of erosion, a landscape still pummelled by waterfalls and caressed by rivers the colour of copper and well-brewed tea.

To the indigenous Upichia people, these mountains are known as Mejeimi Meje — the Echoes of Silence. But now they are beginning to speak volumes about the ancient cultures of South America.

More than 75,000 cave and rock paintings have been discovered here — the largest concentration of rock art anywhere in the world. Some are 20,000 years old. There are so many that most have yet to be dated accurately.

Carlos Castaño-Uribe examines an image of a jaguar. Many of the paintings tell the story of the animal’s cosmic origin

Carlos Castaño-Uribe examines an image of a jaguar. Many of the paintings tell the story of the animal’s cosmic origin

Carlos Castaño-Uribe, a Colombian archaeologist and anthropologist, and his team have studied the paintings for decades but, until now, have revealed little about their findings in order to protect the art and the ecosystem that hosts it. These mountains are home to 3,000 species of plant and animal — more than 20 of the latter are unique to the area. But now the paintings and their environment are so threatened by illegal deforestation that the team has spoken up. This year Castaño-Uribe published a book — yet to appear in English, but whose title translates as Chiribiquete, Cosmic Home of the Jaguar Men — detailing some of his findings.

Castaño-Uribe, who is now in his sixties and a former director of Colombia’s national parks, first ventured into Chiribiquete in the 1980s. He was abseiling down one of the cliffs when he made a startling discovery.

“Hanging 300 metres up the rock face, I arrived at a vast stone ledge and found myself face to face with a pair of jaguars,” he says. “They’re painted looking at each other, though I felt in that moment that they were looking straight at me. I nearly fell off.”

The density, size and positioning of the paintings — often high up on cliff faces — are unparalleled, and Castaño-Uribe believes there are many more works to uncover. The mountain range was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2018, and is part of Colombia’s largest national park, which covers 17,000 square miles. More than 80 per cent of the mountains remain unexplored by scientists or archaeologists.

Chiribiquete is considered to be the centre of the world, and its peaks are thought to be connectors to the cosmos

Chiribiquete is considered to be the centre of the world, and its peaks are thought to be connectors to the cosmos

The Mayan civilisation of Mexico and Central America had sophisticated writing and architecture; the Inca empire stretched from modern-day Ecuador into Chile; and the Aztecs left majestic monuments. But all those societies are long predated by the rock art in Chiribiquete. The findings reveal an elaborate spiritual tradition not previously thought to have existed in the Amazon basin.

The paintings document the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers, showing in unusual detail hunts, battles, dances and rituals — and knowledge of plants and animals that suggest a sophisticated understanding of Amazon ecology.

By far the most commonly painted animal is the jungle’s fiercest predator, the jaguar. Nearly a quarter of the images feature the animal, which played a key role in the religion of the group — now known as the “Jaguar Men”. Castaño-Uribe hypothesises they may have been among the first arrivals on the American continent from Asia.

In local mythology the jaguar is the son of the sun and moon, marked on his back with the black and yellow of his father, and on his belly with the black and white of his mother. He is the overlord of the animals, tasked with the balance of the ecosystem. In order for human hunters to be successful, they had to persuade him to release animals into their hands.

The way jaguars are painted varies — sometimes they are zigzagged, as here, at other times spotted or filled with colour

The way jaguars are painted varies — sometimes they are zigzagged, as here, at other times spotted or filled with colour

To reach the jaguar, a shaman must take a spiritual journey, often aided by sacred plants, many of them hallucinogenic. He must enter the “Cosmic Canoe” (the Milky Way in European tradition), where the jaguar lives. What we call the constellation of Orion is a jaguar mid-leap to Amazonian communities.

Other images discovered by Castaño-Uribe and his team depict long-extinct creatures such as megatheres — 20ft, four-tonne sloths that died out about 10,000 years ago.

“This makes Chiribiquete one of the few depictions of megafauna by a human hand in the entire world,” says Dr Alexander Geurds, a professor at the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology.

The paintings may also shed light on other cultures as figurative images appear beside abstract and geometric icons. For example, next to a more realistic painting of a jaguar may be another represented abstractly — a square with spots, and without head, tail or legs. Such glyphs feature in images and artefacts from across the continent, and Chiribiquete’s walls may provide a “codebook” of their corresponding animals, figures and concepts.

“It’s the Rosetta Stone of the Americas,” says Castaño-Uribe, referring to the inscribed granite stone that was key to deciphering hieroglyphics. “Chiribiquete allows us to interpret the cave art of the whole Neotropical region, the oldest history of the continent.”

South America’s largest cat, the jaguar is a threatened species, but due to its elusive nature it is not known exactly how many remain in the wild

South America’s largest cat, the jaguar is a threatened species, but due to its elusive nature it is not known exactly how many remain in the wild

From the southern United States to the tip of Argentina, the jaguar appears as a shamanic symbol or a totem of power: a phenomenon known as “jaguarity”. Though big cats were once more widespread than today, Castaño-Uribe believes that Chiribiquete may have been the nucleus of jaguarity. “We could be talking about a group of people who were extremely dynamic,” he says, “real explorers who arrived at faraway places, imprinting their characteristics on those places.”

The peaks of Chiribiquete still hold huge spiritual importance for many indigenous communities, each of whom have their own name for the place. For thousands of years the region kept its secrets, thanks to the remoteness of the mountains. In the 20th century fear of the revolutionary guerrilla group Farc deterred visitors, keeping the paintings protected. The distance from authority now poses a threat to the forest, as other illegal groups move into the area.

Deforestation has risen sharply since 2016, when a peace deal was signed with Farc: more than a million acres of primary forest have been lost since then. As well as dissident Farc groups who refused to demobilise, various others are active in clearing land for coca (from which cocaine is derived), illegal gold mining, palm oil cultivation and cattle rearing. “The state is losing what little presence it had in this area. Emergency supplies aren’t even arriving, much less actual government,” says Daniel Aristizabal, from Colombia’s Amazon Conservation Team.

Though the Jaguar Men are long gone, traces of their traditions and cosmology still exist in numerous local groups including the Yanomami

Though the Jaguar Men are long gone, traces of their traditions and cosmology still exist in numerous local groups including the Yanomami

The threat is not just to the rainforest habitat and ancient artworks. There are at least four nomadic indigenous communities living in the area in voluntary isolation, without links to the outside world.

“Any contact could be deadly,” Aristizabal says. “This is what killed many indigenous people in the Americas in the first place — diseases that were brought from Europe. With coronavirus, history could be about to repeat itself.”

Most indigenous people will not enter the mountain area out of respect for the sanctity of the place, though some of the rock faces are rumoured to be “updated” by today’s shamans.

Uldarico Matapi is the Upichia shaman and carrier of ancestral knowledge for his people, a role held by his father. “The paintings are spirits, alive in the rocks,” he tells me. “They still govern the balance of the natural world — everything depends on them.”

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